Just the facts, ma’am? (In a pig’s ear)

The-Castle-KafkaFurther to today’s conversation about the author of The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata. (Here is the piece I read about him.) The question is whether there’s any validity to the claim that it’s OK to change facts in order to “seek a truth here […] but not necessarily accuracy,” as he puts it. “The subjects themselves were betraying a sort of unverifiability,” he adds.

And then we compared it to those ballplayers’ mistaken memories of that Durham Bulls game back in 1984. What they were doing was compensating, unthinkingly, for some unverifiability, whereas D’Agata was doing it on purpose. The Bulls all thought they lost, the Mets (well, Mike Cubbage) thought the same thing. That’s probably because the Mets won the series, so the fact of the game is subsumed into the truth of the series.

So tonight I sat down to start THE CASTLE and opened my copy, which I bought at Half Price Books in Austin about thirteen years ago, basically because James Kelman, with whom I’d been studying fiction (“studying fiction”!  What an overblown phrase–like I sat next to him by candlelight and we read passages from Henry James aloud or something! I took a fiction class with him, that’s all, and it had about twenty people in it), pronounced it “a fuckin’ masterpiece” and made us feel inadequate and lazy for not having read it. I have been carrying the damn copy around ever since (but not nearly as long as I dragged my copy of NAUSEA around before I finally read it, more than two decades later). It’s a handsome volume, and it has two forewords, one by Irving Howe, and the other by Thomas Mann, both of which I confess I found nearly unreadable: ponderous, heavy-handed, and given to just the kind of overstatement and windy interpretation that both writers advise against in reading the novel. Kelman was right about “Metamorphosis” when he insisted that it’s just a story about a young man who turns into a bug; likewise, THE CASTLE has to be read primarily as a story about a guy trying to get into a castle–that is, if you’re reading for enjoyment, which I am.

I knew something about the leeriness in which the incumbent translation, by a Scottish couple named the Muirs, is now regarded. I knew there was a new translation (actually, there’s more than one) based on a further restored “definitive” etc. text. It was from this new dispensation of Kafka’s work that the translation of THE TRIAL I just read was derived. How much did it matter which translation I read? I read the Muirs’ first lines:

It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

With the cautions about the Muirs somewhere in my mind, I got snagged on “illusory.” This led me a few steps around the internet to an essay by Mark Harman (not that one, NCIS!), who did the more recent translation, and after all 22 pages of that I decided he’d convinced me that the Muirs’ rendering of the original was a shameful prettification and simplification and even narrow interpretation of the original and that I could by no means read another word of it. (We know what they say: Never take advice from someone who has a product to sell. But if we observed that rule absolutely we’d never buy anything and starve to death, probably. I’m reminded of the line in HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY that goes something like, this, after humankind has just proved to God that God does not exist and God “vanishes in a puff of logic”: “for an encore man goes on to convince himself that black is white and gets himself killed by a car on the next pedestrian crossing.” Sometimes it’s better not to look too hard at things.)

It’s obvious the Muirs took liberties with Kafka that the ethical reader would take umbrage at. We should deplore what they did, evidently, which was basically to twist Kafka around and mistranslate him. But were they–does all translation?–just “seeking truth here, but not necessarily accuracy,” as D’Agata puts it? I looked at a few paragraphs of Harman’s translation, which is almost certainly “truer” to Kafka but unquestionably less pleasant on the eye. He knows this, and his argument is that he’s not only more faithful to Kafka, he is also reproducing what he says is Kafka’s deliberately dodgy punctuation, run-on sentences, word repetition, and so on. But was it really deliberate? Harman suggests as much, and there is a little bit of evidence in Kafka’s notes, but it’s hard to say for sure. We do know that THE CASTLE was left unfinished. Would Kafka have cleaned up his prose and made the novel more beautiful? Maybe the Muirs were paying him more respect by assuming he would have improved on what he had done. In any case they probably thought they were polishing up his truth at the expense of his facts. I wonder if what D’Agata was doing with his essay could be argued to have been just the modern form of translation.

A little about food, because that’s this blog’s subject, right? This is a little cheeky, but to log a little restaurant “review”: we went to 35 Chinese in Cary for dinner last Sunday after I picked you up from the airport. This was funny partially because it seemed nearby but in fact turned out to be a solid half hour’s drive from the airport. And to give this an extra Kafkaesque kick (that word “Kafkaesque” just had to be used, no?), the restaurant did not seem to be where the map said it would be, and then we drove past the place something like four times before we found it, more or less in a parking garage in the most nondescript part of one of the most nondescript towns, Cary, I’ve ever been in.

First we had the rather Kafkaesque experience in which the waiter denied the existence of a separate “Chinese” menu (which was perhaps true) and then more or less refused to let us order the pig’s ear appetizer. We had to prove, or at least dissemble, that we knew what we were ordering and weren’t going to send it back to the kitchen after discovering that it wasn’t General Tso’s chicken or something. (We can now go ahead and say, “In a pig’s ear!”).

Not being allowed, as the white customer, to order the “weird” food in an “ethnic” restaurant, is sort of a near-cliche of dining culture (more “foodie” culture, I guess), but it had never actually happened to me before. In retrospect, I’m not entirely surprised that it did: remember that the hostess led us to the table with menus and chopsticks “in case you want to try,” as though even in the year 2014 chopsticks could somehow still be considered exotic or flummoxing utensils? This was a tip-off that they had gotten used to a very stodgy white portion of clientele who actually do find chopsticks weird and hard to use.

The waiter was really, seriously intent on not serving us the pig’s ear appetizer, and I almost let him have his way. But then I decided no, I’m ordering the pig’s ear appetizer, and finally he relented. Yes, this was comical, but I was somehow genuinely bothered by the whole exchange, and even left sullen, mainly by all the work we had to do with this guy just to get him to let us order a dish very plainly on the menu in English, like I had just finished reading (or participating in) an ugly, overly complicated version of what should have been a very simple dialogue: “I’ll have the pig’s ear.” “Yes, sir.” Something like that. I felt like we should have just ordered the egg rolls or dumplings or whatever it was he expected us to want and just leave him alone and follow the rules. This was Cary, after all.

The pig’s ear appetizer is not actually my point, though. It was pretty good, well-seasoned, and close to what I expected. We ordered tea-smoked duck and twice-cooked pork, both of which were good. The duck was surprisingly, pleasingly spartan: really just smoked duck on a plate. No sauce, no garnish, and with the pieces chopped and served in such a way as to preserve the anatomical figure of the duck’s legs and such, in sequential parts.

We didn’t finish the food and took it home. Two nights later, I repurposed the duck for a noodle soup: duck stock, pumpkin-ginger-something noodles we got in Southern Pines and will probably never see again, scallions, diced ginger. It was really delicious. You said you like it when I take uneaten restaurant food and turn it into something else at home. It’s fun to do. All I did was crisp the duck in a pan with grapeseed oil in it, but somehow this lacquered the skin in a way that was really good in the soup. And now, after my D’Agata and Kafka evening, all I can think is that I retranslated the duck, or rearranged its facts, in order to make some other truth out of it, which was as satisfying as the original, and now I’m not sure which translation of THE CASTLE I should read.

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